l8<2 MY COUNTRY AND MY PEOPLE
There is no hard-and-fast line of distinction between the yamen
and the non-yamen class.
The family, rather than any hereditary class, is the social
unit. These families go up and down kaleidoscopically. Every-
man past forty has seen with his own eyes how some families
rise and others go down. Social democracy is maintained in
the West or in China, not by any constitution but, as someone
has pointed out, by our prodigal sons. Of these prodigal sons,
there are plenty in China who, through their prodigality,
make the rise of a permanent rich class impossible, standing
thus, as it were, as the bulwark of democracy. The civil
examinations made it possible always for ambitious and able
men to rise from the bottom of the scale. From such examina-
tions none were excluded except the sons of beggars or
prostitutes. And education was not so costly that only sons
of the higher classes could afford it. While learning was a
privilege of the talented, it was never the privilege of the rich,
No one was known to be seriously handicapped in his academic
career by his poverty. In this sense, it may be said that there
was equality of opportunity for all.
The Chinese divide society into four classes, in the following
order of importance: the scholars, the farmers, the artisans and
the merchants. In a primitive agricultural society in which
China always remained, the spirit was essentially democratic.
There was no class antagonism, as there was no need. The
intercourse between these classes, except, as we have mentioned,
the yamen class, was not marred by "class feeling" and snobbery.
In the best social tradition of China, a rich merchant or a high
official may ask a woodcutter to have a cup of tea and chat
quite sociably with him, perhaps with less condescension than
the inmates of an English manor house speak to the farm-hand.1
The farmers, the artisans and the merchants, being all part
of the sap of the earth, are humble, quiet, self-respecting citizens.
The fanners are placed, by Confucian theory, at the head of
these three classes, for the rice-conscious Chinese always know
where every grain comes from, and they are grateful. They,
together with the merchants and artisans, all look up to the
1 A striking example of this is contained in tae sketch called "Democracy"
in Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen.